No Free Speech in Tower Hamlets

Mike Cushman

Tower Hamlets Council banned the The Big Ride for Palestine from using its property for the end event to its ride on 27 July. A ride aimed at raising money for sports for girls and young women traumatised by attacks on Gaza as well as raising awareness about Palestine.

When the Government promoted adoption of the IHRA definition of Antisemitism we warned that not only was the definition poorly worded but that public bodies might make it even worse by going beyond its strict terms. Tower Hamlets have demonstrated that our concerns were fully justified and the IHRA definition is a threat to the free speech Britain prides itself on.

We warned that Councils would ignore the mildly limiting caveats in the definition that: ‘the following examples may serve as illustrations’; ‘manifestations might include’; ‘could, taking into account the overall context, include’. We feared that they would adopt a simple matching approach: matching a phrase, often taken out of context, to one of the eleven tendentious examples.

The Big Ride setting off after lunch
The Big Ride setting off after lunch (Mike Cushman)

Indeed, the lobby groups We Believe in Israel and Local Government Friends of Israel promoted a version that omitted all these calls to context. This doctored version was circulated to all London councils by their coordinating body. Following pressure from Free Speech on Israel the body withdrew the illicit version but not until it had had wide circulation among council officers and members.

We had sought a legal opinion from a leading QC when adoption was mooted. He pointed out that, even interpreted narrowly, the definition conflicted with the rights of free expression guaranteed by the European Charter of Human Rights and the UK Human Rights Act. Further the document was so poorly worded that it could not, in any circumstances, be relied on to inform the actions of a public body. Any use would lay a Coiuncil open to legal challenge.

Despite this Tower Hamlets Council denied the ride access to its park. They did not give a reason but documents reluctantly released following a Freedom of Information application told the story. Council officers took exception to a reference to ‘Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians’ and one to ‘Israeli Apartheid’ on the Big Ride website. Each of these are legitimate political judgements and in no way constitute antisemitism. The correspondence clearly indicates that the officers made their decision in the light of their false interpretation of the IHRA document. However, they were anxious enough about the sensitivity of their action to decide to cover up their reasoning so The Big Ride were unable to contest their exclusion.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign and The Big Ride have written to The Mayor of Tower Hamlets informing him of the oppressive actions of his officers and asking to meet him to add to the Tower Hamlets resolution adopting the IHRA definition the following caveats to guarantee free speech in the borough.

It is not antisemitic, unless there is additional evidence to suggest anti-Jewish prejudice, to:

          criticise the Government of Israel;

          criticise Zionism as a political ideology;

          describe any policy or law or practices of the state of Israel as racist, including acts leading to Palestinian dispossession as part of the establishment of the state;

          describe Israel as an apartheid state;

          advocate boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel

The Guardian carried a report of these events on 3 August 2019

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2 thoughts on “No Free Speech in Tower Hamlets”

  1. There is another aspecct to the poorly worded IHRA definition and examples.
    Almost identical wording is being used in motions being passed by local councils wanting to express opposition to Islamophobia.
    Ultimately, the cynical attempt to attack the Labour Party on the false ground of antisemitism is now being emulated by ultra-extremist Islamists for a similar purpose, i.e. that of fatally undermining free speech in the United Kingdom.
    The ultra-zionists have brought freedom of expression to its knees, risking a real danger that the rise of far right neo-fascism will be allowed to flourish without challenge in our country.
    They won’t care as they anticipate higher rates of aliyah migration as a result.
    The people to feel sorry for are the poorer Jews who cannot afford that option.
    But still the zionists won’t care.
    Only wealthier Jews could afford the Ha’avara Agreement terms in the 1930s.
    History is – once again – repeating itself?

    1. Sorry, John, I think your arguments are not quite correct. The wordings being proposed to define Islamophobia may be somewhat problematic but are very different to IHRA. They don’t say, for example, ‘Opposition to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or similar countries as declared Islamic Republics is an example of Islamophobia’. That’s the key thing: criticism of an unjust system of ethnic or religious supremacy in a foreign country is not hatred of that ethnicity/religion yet IHRA tries to define it as such.

      I agree that Zionist organisations and leaderships (though not every Jewish supporter of Israel) are (and always have been) openly delighted when aliyah rates rise s a result of real or perceived anti-semitism. I don’t know why you think that aliyah is not open to poor Jews – very many, perhaps the majority, of immigrants to Israel arrived with nothing or very little. Many came as refugees forbidden to take any wealth or possessions with them. There is no wealth test for Jewish immigrants, they have the ‘right to return’ and will receive help to integrate etc. Indeed, their migration costs may be paid for them (by the state or its agencies or charities) if they can’t afford it. The injustice comes when we bring the dispossessed Palestinians into the picture.

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